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French minister backs Champagne over new Russia law

Outrage in Champagne over a new Russian labelling law has been followed by strong words from France’s foreign trade minister, who promised to defend producers’ interests.

France’s foreign trade minister, Franck Riester, said on Twitter that there would be no compromise in his government’s ‘defence of the interests of our Champagne producers’ over Russia’s new labelling rules for wine and spirits.

He also raised the possibility of taking Russia to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Under the EU banner, ‘we will not hesitate to pursue Russia at the WTO if necessary’, he said.

France’s Comité Champagne has called Russia’s new labelling rules ‘scandalous’.

Champagne makers were taken by surprise late last week after president Vladimir Putin was reported to have signed a law stating the word ‘shampanskoye’, a direct translation of Champagne, is now reserved exclusively for domestic wineries.

‘Champagne’ in Latin characters can still appear on the main bottle label in Russia, but the back label must say ‘sparkling wine’, according to the Comité Champagne.

Yet it was still going through the finer points of the new rules, having only received further details at the beginning of this week.

‘Nobody was really aware that this would happen,’ said Charles Goemaere, director general of the Comité Champagne. ‘We’re still a little bit unclear about the precise consequences.’

The immediate effect has been a rapid halt in Champagne heading to Russia. ‘All the shipments which had been organised had to be cancelled for the moment,’ said Goemaere.

He said the Comité advised producers to suspend shipments primarily to prevent the risk of bottles getting blocked at the Russian border.

There is also ‘the shock for Champagne producers to find that they’re not allowed to use their name anymore’, Goemaere added.

He said he was hopeful shipments can resume ‘as soon as possible’ and that a way forward can be found – possibly via either diplomatic or trade channels – but that this would depend on developments.

He said it’s still early days in terms of next steps, but it’s hoped diplomacy could help. ‘The first thing is to ask France and EU [officials] to contact their Russian counterparts,’ Goemaere said.

He added, ‘We want to understand precisely the rationale for this new law, to try to find a solution.’

Champagne is a protected name in the EU and several other non-EU countries, and the Comité Champagne is known for vigorously defending producers’ rights to the term.

Russia has a long history of enjoying Champagne, with some bottles even making it through blockades during the Napoleonic era.

In 2020, Champagne exports to Russia rose by nearly 10% in volume in 2020, to almost 1.9m bottles, and were up by around 2% in value, to €35m, according to Comité Champagne figures.

Global Champagne shipments, including exports and deliveries within France, dropped by 18% last year versus 2019, primarily due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Comité said.

Total shipments reached 244m bottles, with a value of €4.2bn before tax – down €845m versus 2019.

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